Courage, contemplation, compassion: These are the great ideals of the ancient world. And though their lights are dimming, there is still time to revive them, to examine them, and, if one is so moved, to bring them into one’s own life.
by Mark Edmundson | The Chronicle of Higher Education
It is no secret: Culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and skeptical. When I look out at my students, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money and succeed, a strategy for getting on in life.
We’re more and more a worldly, money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. From the halls of academe, where a debunking realism is the order of the day, to the floor of the stock market, nothing is in worse repute than the ideal.
The passing away of our commitment to ideals should not happen without second thoughts. Young people, who have traditionally been the ones most receptive to ideals, should be able to choose. Do they want to live a wholly practical life in a practical culture? Do they want to seek safety and security and never risk being made fools of? Or do they perhaps want something else? Every generation should be able to hold its own plebiscite on the issue of ideals.
Courage, contemplation, compassion: These are the great ideals of the ancient world. And though their lights are dimming, there is still time to revive them, to examine them, and, if one is so moved, to bring them into one’s own life. Although their first exemplars — Homer, Plato, Buddha, Jesus — are male, the ideals are there for men and women alike, and for members of all races and every class. The warrior needs strength, yes; the thinker needs the chance to develop intellect. Those facts may eliminate certain individuals, though not as many as one might imagine. But the life of compassion, perhaps the most consistently rewarding of the ideals, is available to all of us.
Few will be able to adopt an ideal without reserve. There will always be some need for the protective armor of what I will call “self.” But even those of us most enclosed in self can expand our beings with the simplest acts of courage or compassion, or with a true effort at thought. And after that initial expansion, who knows what might befall?